The problems with the smartwatch even Apple can't solve

Summary:The rumor that Apple is hard at work on a smartwatch keeps popping up, but that type of product has some issues that even Apple might not be able to properly address.

09 MetaWatch on wrist
MetaWatch Strata -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

We've heard for quite some time that Apple is hard at work on its next big thing, a smartwatch. There's even a product name all picked out by the pundits, the iWatch. According to persistent rumors Apple has dozens, maybe even hundreds, of its brightest employees getting the iWatch ready to blow everybody away. As exciting as rumors make the smartwatch sound, I don't think Apple is going to be able to adequately address some practical issues.

Smartwatches are nothing new, they've been around for a few years. We've seen models that simply serve as a second screen for the smartphone, some that connect directly to the web to retrieve information, and others that contain a whole Android device that can run apps.

See also: Fossil MetaWatch: The personal grid is here | MetaWatch Strata: Keep your phone in your pocket | WiMM One: Android for the wrist

Lack of engaging funtions for a smartwatch

None of these smartwatches have captured the attention of buyers. First, while it's cool when you first try a smartwatch, after a short period it gets, well, boring. I've tried several smartwatches and I really like the concept. Unfortunately, the limited functionality wears thin over time and the smartwatch ends up sitting on the shelf.

It's useful to a point, then it becomes readily apparent that it's not as cool as you thought when you first got the smartwatch. If you're like most people you have the smartphone, in the case of Apple's iWatch that would be the iPhone, in your hand most of the time that you're free to use a smartwatch. There's no compelling reason to look at the watch when you have a nice, big, high-resolution screen in your hand. The smartwatch ends up being used mostly as, you guessed it, a watch. Even that is less than useful as the time is displayed on that iPhone in the hand.

The watches that serve as second screens are a good example of the lack of engaging functions for smartwatches. These connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth and basically show phone notifications on the watch. This usually consists of caller ID, email, social network updates, and text messages. This is useful in that it you can keep the phone in the purse or pocket and check the watch when a notification comes in. Of course, over time the phone makes it back into the hand so it's easier to just check the incoming notifications on the phone.

Apple would probably give the iWatch the ability to run apps to make it useful. It might run full iOS or a special subset of it to run special apps that provide engaging functionality. That would almost have to be the case to give any reason at all to get buyers to open their wallets.

There's one big problem with this approach, the screen. The tiny screen, to be exact. A smartwatch shouldn't have a display bigger than a square inch to avoid being too big to be fashionable, and even that's pretty big on the wrist. Maybe Apple would try to make a watch with a longer, narrow display, but it would still have to be big enough to display enough information to be useful. That would be tough to do as small screens are not very practical to run apps. There's a reason why smartphone screens have been getting bigger and bigger over time, and they started out much bigger than a tiny watch display. 

The watch display would have to be a touch screen to be practical, and that brings challenges when a screen is that tiny. If you display icons and controls big enough to be tapped with a fingertip, that little screen gets filled up really quickly. You end up with a touch screen that doesn't display much at all which limits the practical functions Apple can give to its fancy iWatch.

Next page: Playing music; The phone watch

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Apps, iPhone

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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